Category Archives: celebrations

Stranger in a strange land…

I wake up at 5 AM, I’m used to that at Udayan, that’s when the girls awoke and the sound of their morning ministrations and singing was my alarm clock.  I have bags to unpack and I am now very hungry.  Making my way to the kitchen I am confronted with the huge refrigerator and lots of prepared foods – frozen, boxed nothing like what I’ve had for sometime.  In India, marketing is a must each day or things spoil so the luxury of freshly prepared foods is going to a challenge.  I make a note to get over to my organic market today and make some vegetarian dishes for the family.   I am really feeling lost – there is just so much in this kitchen to deal with. The microwave is remarkable to me as is the freezer -all these gadgets – it’s as though I’ve been away for years, not months.

modern conveniences, or kitchen culture shock!

I take Jacques for a walk and notice a can of soda someone has tossed on the ground, it looks so out of place, everything is so quiet, too quiet and so pristine. I scoop to pick it up and throw it out and then it hits me – in Kolkata I never would have done this, there would be too much to clear away!  The streets here look so beautiful, especially after the newly fallen snow. Yet it is lonely, impersonal, there is no sign of life, no people, no music wafting in the air no scent of spices cooking. Unused and overlooked.  The solitude and insular nature of this life is a stark contrast to life in Kolkata. I am missing the daily dialogue and the interest in the life going on around us. You may be walking alone, but you are never alone. The entire city is one family, very communal. Here it is segregated into your job, family; one may be part of the same village but living in a different area is as though you lived in a different part of the state.   In Kolkata it all meshed and in one day whatever you did your world merged  –  many of the same faces appeared, and even strangers reached out to help.  Work, play the daily chores all bring (it seems) the communal nature of life in India into the fore.  I felt like I lived with the whole world, everything was interwoven like the  colorful intricate tapestries they create.

some of the younger gang

a side street in Kolkata

My body is in this world but my mind is split in two worlds.  The constant blare of the TV, invasive and jarring is a reminder of  the lack of natural environment.  In Kolkata, especially at Udayan, I was one with nature and the elements in India, totally immersed in the children, art and the culture. It feels very artificial here – air conditioning and heat   are like barriers- I want to open the window all the time, even in the snow, rain and cold to let life in.  I have all the conveniences, yet it is like living in an Ivory Tower.

My cell phone rings jolting me out of my musings about the nature of my two worlds. It is my sister, just in for a few days from California.  Will I come into New York and meet her for dinner?  Of course I say, I haven’t seen her in 3 months and we always make time for each other, even if it is for just an hour or two.

Waiting for Metro North I observe that no one on the train platform makes eye contact, I see bored, stressed and depressed faces, no smiles, no interaction. Then the train comes rumbling in and the crowd exclaims that it is just “so crowded!” I chuckle to myself, I definitely have a new perspective on little things, having taken the trains in Kolkata, this one seems nearly empty…the fact that there are seats available, that no one is leaning, sitting or sleeping on me – wow- even the bathroom (which I never would have thought of using before my time in India) looks sparkling clean.

As I ride the taxi uptown to my meet my sister I am marveling at how perfect and serene the streets of Madison Avenue look, with buildings gleaming, and how orderly the traffic is . Even though I traveled to and from the same destination while working at Udayan so many times, we couldn’t go a mile without asking for directions on many a street corner. Street signs were not to be counted on and sometimes the only way I knew where I was going was by landmarks – the same fruit stands, or the way a street curved, or the stream beside the road – these were my road signs.

A landmark to the road towards Udayan

Outside New Market in Kolkata

After dinner we walk back to Grand Central together and then we say goodbye, but even though it is only 10 PM  on Saturday night – the height of travel  at the station on a weekend, I ask Cindy to stay with me.  I actually feel unsafe – this place seems sketchy. Cindy is incredulous – “are you serious” she asks.  Yeah, I am and I never felt this way in Kolkata – even though I was traveling alone, I felt safe and at home.

When I am finally seated on the train, I close my eyes while listening to my Bengali music and I can see the faces of the class 10 boys as they sang on the bus, or the beatific face of the musician who gave a concert in Jaipor.

posing at sunset

my musician friend from Jaipor

I must keep the fire burning in my heart with my music and the photographs of the children, so I can bring myself back to the special place I have just left.  And I will continue to write as I did in India and create some of my own collages – after all I’ve had the best teacher, the children of Udayan and their bright smiling souls.

Always ready for the camera!

"my girls" and dorm-mates for two months

These are the greatest teachers I’ve had in my career, and I hope my work will          be as inspired as these are. Namaskar…..



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The big event: art show and paparazzi…

before the guests arrive, anticipation

Today is the big day, the newspaper printed another small article as a reminder – we are hoping for a large turnout.  As we finish the final touches having labeled and priced each painting, I go back to the house to dress.  Thank goodness for Meera once again, my hands are shaking and I can’t figure how to wrap the beautiful Kantha sari I’ve chosen to wear. from   Once wrapped properly, she helps me place a bindi on my forehead and then picks out the jewelry to go with the sari. Antara, Archana and Shamlu give a thumbs up of their approval and we are off to the Palladian.

As we arrive I am greeted by my new friend Shalome who is one of the administrators there and he is amazed at my transformation from a racing maniac hanging paintings to a (somewhat) serene woman in Indian dress. He remarks that I look as though I have worn a sari all my life and I must admit I do feel very comfortable.

admiring some of the art with the students

say "cheese"!

the artists and their work

One last check at all the work, a bit of leveling each collage and we are ready for the troops. The children arrive promptly at 5 PM, and they rush to me hugging, kissing and admiring my outfit. Even the boys tell me that “auntie” looks like a “princess” and I laugh.  After they settle down I tell them to look around at all they’ve created and that this exhibit is for them; had they not been such great, talented students we wouldn’t be here having a show.  They are bubbling now with anticipation and I can see how proud they are and it makes my heart fill with joy.  This is the best time – seeing their expressions. I am so happy for them.  We take many pictures and the staff is there to pose with me and the children ask for photos with me as well.

Guest are arriving and I must leave the kids to greet everyone, then the media comes, many more than I expected – TV, magazines and 4 newspapers to cover the event. The children’s eyes are a s big as saucers, they are awestruck.

The journalists and photographers grab me for shots with the kids, on my own, with the work and then they interview me and a few of the students asking about the meaning of their individual collages and what it was like to work in this medium and with me.  Their expressions tell me the whole story and I can’t stop smiling.  One fashion magazine pulls me aside to take photos of my outfit and then I’m grabbed by some more of the media.   This joint is jumping and I see some of the chief guests arrive, it is time to start the opening ceremony. We have speeches and a candle lighting ceremony and Shamlu speaks as do the main guests,  one of whom is a very famous artist. He pronounces the work and the show to be a success and the frenzy begins as the viewers start to purchase the work and ask some of the children to explain the technique and the meaning of their collages.  We sell out of the greeting cards Antara has printed and soon about 12 large works are sold.  I am asked to say a few words which are mostly directed to the children, had it not been for Udayan I wouldn’t have come to India and not have had the great privilege of working with these children. They have made this experience complete and I thank them for that.  I tell them to continue to work in my absence and that a seed has been planted, it must be nurtured by practice and continued creativity.  Then Antara and a few of the Udayan girls perform a special song they’ve practiced for the event. (Antara sings like a songbird and teaches singing with an open heart).

Antara and her choir perform

Our honored guest speaks to the children about their great work

Shamlu makes a welcome speech

Soon it is time for cocktails so the children must leave and we say goodbye tearfully. I promise to come before heading back to the US.  The party now is in full swing and when I’m not being interviewed by the press I am meeting with many who are interested in the how and why and also the specific technique I use.  So many people, so much interest and love in that room.  After it winds down I am finally able to sit and take a breathe. Then  Karuna suggests we go for a small dinner and the party continues. We toast to the continued success of the show as it will be on for 3 days, saying our goodnights and head back to our respective homes. Giddy from the success of the exhibit, we all collapse, happy but exhausted. Someone calls to say the TV has aired the art show and interviews, but I don’t know which station so I don’t get a chance to see it.

presentation of flowers and the opening ceremony


A word of thanks

Thursday morning I am called by the editor of Society Magazine for another phone interview and after a very productive conversation she tells me the magazine will be out in March or the very latest April.  April will mark the one year since I met Shamlu , very auspicious. I think we make a good team.

the girls take a guest on a tour of their work

Today I will shift over to Karuna’s as there is a scheduling conflict with a guest from France – I am to stay at a 110+  Maharaja’s summer palace for the next few nights until I head to Delhi.  This is a rare treat and the palace is grand.  The royalty was “abolished” in 1955 during the fight for independence, though the maharajas were permitted to keep their titles, they had to give up much of their land holdings. In this palace only a small part of this huge, historic building is used for living quarters and the rest is let out for affairs such as weddings. Karuna has invited me to the Oberoi Hotel for yet another fashion show to launch a new energy drink. I am greeted at the door by the organizer of the event and the head of the drink company – we met last night at the art show. Much hugging and kissing occurs and so once again the paparazzi hones in- there are many who were there last night and they recognize me (how could they not – an American in a salwar kameez).  We leave after mingling with many of the people I have come to know during this 7 week stint, we exchange cards and some of the more prominent men have promised me that they will do some networking to get funding for me to return next year. There is no money for art supplies when the children need linens and toothbrushes and other personal hygiene products. Having done my share, we return to the palace and I sleep well having dreams that seem like fairytales.

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Fish is dead, “no it’s just sleeping”….

Under the sea, by Sikandra

one of the collages created today

When I first arrived at Udayan, I was taken with the fact that there was a fish tank in the girls dorm complete with many fish, decorations and a filter system. I found that interesting as all of India conserves water very seriously and electricity is scarce at times.  My room has a toilet and a bucket. One is to fill the bucket with warm (if you’re lucky) water and then use another small jug to scoop the water and pour it onto your body. It can be tricky at first, especially if you try to wash your hair.  After a few days I got the hang of it and it actually is a great way to save water though you can freeze in between scoops.  (We Westerners can learn a thing or two from this to help with global conservation).

I wondered who fed the fish and cleaned the tank since water was so scarce.  Each day I would look at the tank hoping that I wouldn’t have to face the worst and was happily rewarded with live, swimming fish.  I make a mental note to ask about the cleaning and feeding, but never remember. I just salute them each morning and go about my business.

Today there is to be another picnic, a church and it’s members from Kolkata will arrive.  I get ready for a marathon day of many students coming in to complete or start their collages.  We are working hard when there is a loud commotion outside and the kids pull me out to see what’s up, leaving the studio and my computer behind. I can’t believe my eyes, Saraswati Puja is over and the boys are doing the ritual ceremony of carting the statue around with incense and banging drums and gongs, they are dancing and chanting, basically have a grand time getting really rowdy. You are supposed to take all the offerings and throw them into the Ganges, but since that’s too far, they bring her to the “pool”  – which was a pool but now has fish in it and is rather like a pond. All the offerings are thrown in, then the boys jump in with all their clothes on, along with everything they can find, including any unsuspecting people.  The kids ask auntie to come a little closer, but I’m wise to this game and have no intention of swimming with my clothes on. The church group has arrived at the school, this time with a caterer for a their picnic. There is music and delicious food for the guests, who watch in amazement as these boys go nuts with their singing and boisterous behavior.  Back to the studio we must go, until it is lunch time. No one wants to leave the scene before us, the boys are  getting rowdier and louder jumping and splashing. The girls join in too, it’s a riot.

getting rowdy after the ending puja ceremony

I leave with a small procession of children following me to the art room. We must be quite a site, like a mother duck and her ducklings. We are working, zoned out again, when a man appears and wishes to talk with me. He is one of the church members  but was curious to see where we were going. He admires the children’s work, asked many questions, including if he and some of the others could purchase the collages. I explained about the exhibit, and he asked to be invited, providing me with his address and asking for my name. 20 minutes later, Taniele has called to ask that I come immediately to the picnic area. I have been asked (rather ordered) to join them and have a meal (now this is my third meal of the day and it’s 3 PM).  This is a very interesting group of older men and women, very kind and genuinely interested in Udayan and the children and my work. I sit for a few minutes, they are watching me eat every morsel (of course with my hand as tradition dictates), I cannot say no as they continue to pile on food and sweets. This is really good food, though I wish one of the Udayan dogs could sereptisiously eat some of the food left on my plate so I won’t insult the group. I  must get back to the art room as I have left the kids there, unattended, with my computer on. I’ve told them  NOT TO TOUCH THE COMPUTER or there will be a very angry not so funny auntie to deal with. They are working like angels when I arrive.

We finish, exhausted but happy, to find the finals of the cricket match going strong, so I stay to watch India win. Then off to the room for the shower I didn’t have this morning as there was no water. I enter the building and as usual, check out the tank.

OH NOOOOO, there’s a large fish hugging the side of the tank. I call for the housemother saying, fish is dead!  She says no, it’s sleeping. She bangs on the tank, as do I, now we are both banging with keys and my lock for the door. The fish doesn’t move.  Later, after feeling upset and taking my shower, I reappear to check on the situation. The fish has now moved downstream to the other end of that same wall of the tank, still hugging the wall with it’s mouth agape and looking very dead. Once again, I ask the house mother and she once again says, fish not dead, “see moved to other side”.   I’m thinking, yeah, it moved with the current but the darn thing is not alive. I know a dead fish when I see one, unpleasant as it is.   There is nothing I can do,  so I sigh and go for a walk around the grounds, return to the room and watch one episode of my downloaded 30 Rock.  Then I fall asleep and I swear I have a dream about swimming. I awaken in the early morning and my covers are off, I have definitely been swimming in my sleep.

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Saraswati Puja, kite flying and a night of dancing under the stars…..

the beginning of the ceremony for Saraswati Puja, the goddess of learning

in front of the alter with marigold petals to make an offering

At another school alter for Saraswati Puja

I am awake, have my makeup on and am dressed only in my petticoat and blouz, waiting for the girls to come help with the sari. the task seems daunting, I cannot fathom how these young girls and women dress so quickly in this endless ribbon of pattern and amazing color.  to me it’s like putting a giant origami on oneself, not an easy task.

7:30 on the dot knock on the door, it is Taniele with all of her things, we are to dress in my room.   Then another knock, actually several, and we have 21 girls in my tiny room, equipped with jewelry, nail polish, bindi – the decoration worn between the eyes (little paste on jewels), safety pins and extra makeup. The girls are ecstatic and ready to dress us. I feel like a giant Barbie doll, playing dress up with these dorm friends. They stand on my bed, all of them, dressing Taniele and me in tandem. There is some argument as to who is correct in their pleating of the saris, I just hope that whatever happens it doesn’t fall off. the air is full of giddy excitement as we begin to emerge as Indian princesses. The girls are checking me out, insisting I put on more eye makeup and lipstick, very critical of which color I choose. Then the search for jewelry is on, they like my earrings but insist I must wear a necklace and a million bangles.  Bothe of us look in the mirror and are shocked to see ourselves outfitted as though we were truly Indian woman.  Hair is combed and re combed, pins and sparkles added then removed then an upsweep of the hair and finally down again with a matching pink clip in my hair.

Now the room is filled with about 50 girls, and the housemother who comes to make sure we won’t end up unraveling as we walk. She makes a few adjustments and then takes a picture.

The girls are now dressed in their colorful saris, and we start a processional to the dining hall to have breakfast before the ceremony begins.   The headmasters and the boys do a double take at this parade of beauties. They smile shyly as they see us, the “aunties‘ all dressed up. Everyone is saying “beautiful, beautiful!” in Bengali, we wave and continue towards the alter.  A colorful and ornate statue of Saraswati, covered with garlands of marigolds and other flowers has been mounted on an alter of bamboo and sticks, there are plates of food, fruit, incense is burning and clay pots contain more incense to wave as the priest says his prayers. Marigold petals are handed out to each of us, Taniele and I seem to have more than the others. We are ushered ahead to the front so that we may have a great view of the ceremony. Bells are ringing, gongs are banged and we recite the prayer to this goddess of learning. Books have been put into the alter as a symbol of learning and offerings are piled up as well. It is gorgeous and colorful, complete with saris of every color of the rainbow and girls looking like beautiful dolls.

flying high

Father Stevens arrives and the service begins, we recite the blessings and then there is a pause while we all throw the first of three batches of marigolds into the alter. We are covered with flower petals. Taniele is asked to wave the incense around all of our heads, and  am given the bell to ring while walking around the alter and children. It is a blessing. Lastly, we are sprinkled with water from the Ganges River as a blessing for the year of learning. It is a remarkable service and I am taken with the seriousness of these boys and girls. Learning to them is a blessing and they are thankful to God for this opportunity to expand their horizons.

Now for the good stuff…Taniele and I are to walk through the village with this pageant of 50 girls to go to each of their schools for a special meal and to show off all of our clothes.  As we pass through our local village, the people stare, wave and yell comments about how we look. Men stare as do teenage boys, the girls warn me to not look them in the eye – “they are very rude auntie, very bad”.  Even the women of the village look at us with wide eyes, it’s as though we are from another planet, maybe we are.    The girls are also very proud of their aunties, dressed beautifully thanks to their expertise. They introduce us to teachers and friends who stare and ask to have their pictures taken with us. We are asked a million questions – where are we from, how many children do I have, everyone is touching the bracelets and my hair and the sari, which is neon magenta and stands out like a huge flower.  We have a wonderful meal and  soon it is time to leave for the next school. We now we have about 75 girls in our group, friends and others having joined our entourage. As we head for another school (some are Hindi, some Bengali) we run into some of the Udayan boys who join us with their friends. We are 100 strong and I think we must be a site to be seen.  The boys’ friends ask if they may take my picture, and of course I say yes, though I am a little embarrassed.  Arriving at the next school we are once again surrounded with young girls, so gorgeous with their hair, jewels and best saris with many of the same greetings and questions. I take pictures and are photographed as well. We are then ushered into another dining hall to meet the teachers and have a meal. I am stuffed but may not say no as it is impolite to refuse food. We eat with our right hand, no utensils are used, we must eat the traditional way which I am learning fast. Once again, goodbyes are said and we go to yet another school, another meal – you get the picture. We have more than 120 students in our conga line at this point and as we pass another school which no one is attending, we are urged to come in and see the facilities, and again asked or forced to sit down to another meal. I look at Taniele and our eyes meet saying silently that we are going to burst!   Then, Saddam, one of my art students and a great guy asks us to see his school. we have been walking now for about 5 hours, but everyone says yes, so off we go. ANOTHER MEAL.  I don’t know what to say. I’m just grateful that the sari hides many things – like a bulging stomach.

We are finally heading back through the winding streets of Barrackpore to Udayan. Children with kites are everywhere.  I take a picture while walking backwards to just get the enormity of the group across in a photo. Once again we pass at least 50 Saraswati figures and alters and multicolored ribbons hanging from grass alters and huts to worship this goddess.  Men are still shouting from the rooftops, at this point I am wilting so I don’t care. I just would like to sit down and wash my feet!

our group is getting larger here at the second school

As we enter the gates of our school, more children are waiting to see us, and we say good evening then hurry back to the room to undress as quickly as possible. the hell with traditional dress, I put on a pair of jeans and shirt, tie my hair up and feel one hundred pounds lighter. It is dinner time, I have no intention of eating another thing for at least 2 days.  The boys have started playing some dance music and are whooping it up , so I stay to watch. Pretty soon I am asked to dance and end up dancing like a maniac, trying to follow the dance steps of these boys who happen to be the best dancers I’ve seen in a while.  American boys, watch out!  These guys know how to party.  I run off to get my computer from the room, I have a movie function and then video tape them as we all dance. 50 minutes later, the battery dies and I’ve got an hour of movies of our dance fest on record. I will edit it and burn a CD to send to them when I return to the States.  The stars are out, it is a clear night, everyone is smiling and laughing, I’ve danced with all the boys, even the little 4 year olds, who can dance up a storm.  They would be a big hit on “Dancing with the Stars”.   I’ve had the time of my life and will never forget this day.

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